The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender.
How the Few and the Many Use Pictures and Music
By way of expanding the uses of his theory, and of providing more varied examples, Lewis begins noting how the “many” tend to approach visual arts and music in a way that prevents them from being really experienced.
His observation on art boils down to this: that most people like pictures and paintings primarily for the subject or scene rather than for the artistic expression. If the painting is of something they like – a pastoral scene, an energetic battle, an alluringly unclad woman, etc. – then they will like it better than a superior painting that is of a scene that does not inherently interest them – say, a still life, or a portrait like the Mona Lisa. So it is that Lewis himself, as a child, loved all the illustrations of Beatrix Potter because he loved anthropomorphised animals, but made no distinction between her good illustrations and her hasty, ill-drawn ones. Used this way, art is reduced to the value of a toy or a religious icon.
While you retain this attitude you treat the picture—or rather a hasty and unconscious selection of elements in the picture—as a self-starter for certain imaginative and emotional activities of your own. In other words, you ‘do things with it’. You don’t lay yourself open to what it, by being in its totality precisely the thing it is, can do to you.
His observation on music is similar: the many invariably go to music which either provokes a social response (dancing, humming, clapping) by an infectious rhythm or melody, or which incites strong emotional responses and daydreams. Or all of these, of course. Lewis believes that nearly all of us start in the many with regards to music, and only begin to appreciate it with time and some musical education. We listen to most music just for the tune or rhythm, usually failing to notice and appreciate all the wonderful choices in arrangement and performance. And the more we focus on the images and emotions that a song conjures up for us, the less we notice the actual music itself.
As regards one instrument (the bagpipes) I am still in this condition. I can’t tell one piece from another, nor a good piper from a bad. It is all just ‘pipes’, all equally intoxicating, heartrending, orgiastic.
Now, as Lewis has warned before, these popular uses of pictures and music are not inherently bad or wrong. Keats looked at the black figures on a piece of ancient pottery and was inspired to write “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and that was very good. “But admirable in its own way; not admirable as an appreciation of ceramic art” (18), if that was his only reaction to it. And to deny the “organic,” emotional responses to music would be not just foolish, but utterly insane!
To sing and dance round a fiddler at a fair (the organic and social response) is obviously a right-minded thing to do. To have ‘the salt tear harped out of your eye’ is not foolish or shameful. And neither response is peculiar to the unmusical. The conoscenti too can be caught humming or whistling…But they don’t hum or whistle while the music is going on; only in reminiscence, as we quote favourite lines of verse to ourselves. [emphasis mine]
I interject quickly to say that I don’t think Lewis is denying that musical people will ever hum and whistle a tune while listening to the song, but rather that they are always sure to take time to listen to songs with their full attention, in order to pick out all its notes and unique details. Their enjoyment becomes “impregnated with intelligence.” We could even say that it is informed enjoyment, and “far more sensuous than the popular use; more tied to the ear” (24).
With art and music, as with books, we should open ourselves fully to what the artist is doing with his particular art. We must try to rid ourselves of preconceptions and prejudices—not of all thought or opinions, certainly, but of our own demands for what we want the piece of art to be.
We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and Venus…by emptying out or own [emotions and opinions regarding the mythological characters of these Roman deities]. After the negative effort, the positive. We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.) (19)
But the good spectator–like the good reader–is not passive. He receives a work of art for what it is, in order to learn what its own terms are, so that he may see more accurately what it is. Once these terms are understood, he may decide that they are not worth his full employment.
So we draw a distinction between good and bad approaches to art. Good art can possibly be used for unworthy purposes, but it encourages a good, intelligent approach. On the other hand, “a bad picture cannot be enjoyed with that full and disciplined ‘reception’ which the few give to a good one.” Try gazing for a long period at a painting by da Vinci or Jacques Louis David; you will be drawn into it, marveling over little details, a line here, the colors there, the shape and composition of the whole. But try the same experiment with a poor painting or drawing, and you will find there is no real substance to concentrate on. You will likely even find that the more concentration you give it, the worse the picture appears, as all its artistic faults become apparent!
That is the heart of Lewis’ argument, and one of the most important passages in the book. Another easy example for us to consider is film. Most people go to the movies just so they can turn their brains off and have various emotions pricked and tickled while they watch attractive people doing things they find attractive. They actively resist movies that try to demand more of them as viewers, or that have elements that don’t conform to what they know they like. But if I had never sat down to watch Citizen Kane to humor my dad’s interest, I never would have discovered what a fantastically entertaining movie that is, in addition to it being a fantastically intelligent and insightful one. Had I never agreed, however reluctantly, as a kid, to watch a boring-sounding movie about a girl and some geese, I never would have experienced the beauty of Fly Away Home.
But back to books. I admit that I very rarely read a book that is not fantasy or history-related. Other books simply interest me less. I know my comfort zone (and pretend it’s some kind of expertise), “what I like.” And, ultimately, this is detrimental. Now, because I have known of this danger for years, I do try to mitigate its effects. Every so often I step aside to read a nonfiction book, maybe even one that has nothing to do with writing or history. And while I think all my literature classes from fifth grade through university could have used more great fantasy literature, I am also grateful that they forced me to read novels I never otherwise would have considered: To Kill a Mockingbird, Crime & Punishment, even The Scarlet Letter. Even the books I disliked gave me experiences I could not have had otherwise, and thus played some role in enriching me.
I leave you now with a good piece of music to Listen to and consider in enjoyment.
Can you think of a painting or piece of music which, by paying long and considerable attention to it purely for its own sake, you were able to enjoy it more fully?